Food Blogging as Wunderkammer

More than occasionally I wonder what is food blogging and how can it continue to differ (and differentiate itself) from other media. The late-90s chestnut of blogging being “all about community” has been all but superseded by real communities moving online. As much as I’m not a huge fan of Facebook, there’s 120 million other people whom think otherwise. Then this week I came upon, this article from Julian Dibbell:

A Web log really, then, is a Wunderkammer. That is to say, the genealogy of Web logs points not to the world of letters but to the early history of museums — to the “cabinet of wonders,” or Wunderkammer, that marked the scientific landscape of Renaissance modernity: a random collection of strange, compelling objects, typically compiled and owned by a learned, well-off gentleman. A set of ostrich feathers, a few rare shells, a South Pacific coral carving, a mummified mermaid — the Wunderkammer mingled fact and legend promiscuously, reflecting European civilization’s dazed and wondering attempts to assimilate the glut of physical data that science and exploration were then unleashing.

Just so, the Web log reflects our own attempts to assimilate the glut of immaterial data loosed upon us by the “discovery” of the networked world. And there are surely lessons for us in the parallel. For just as the cabinet of wonders took centuries to evolve into the more orderly, logically crystalline museum, so it may be a while before the chaos of the Web submits to any very tidy scheme of organization.

If you’re in most of the developed world, you’re bombarded with data about food: maybe food blogging is just an attempt to order it while staying in a state of constant amazement.

How to make coconut milk

I make my own coconut milk. It tastes nuttier and richer than that from a can, and frankly, I enjoy spending vast amounts of my spare time preparing food. Most recipes for making milk mention grating up the coconut or extracting the white flesh with a zester or fork – but it is much faster to pulp the flesh up in a blender.

how to make coconut milk

You’ll need a hammer, a clean cloth, a blender and an old brown coconut.

how to make coconut milk

In his book Thai Food, David Thompson recommends cracking the coconut open with the back of your heavy cleaver but a hammer is much more efficient and satisfying, with the added bonus of not risking losing an ear. Whack the coconut with the hammer until it cracks open. Let the juice inside run out and discard (or drink it, if you’re into sour coconut water).

how to make coconut milk


how to make coconut milk

Peel out the white flesh using a knife or a spoon. There is a thin and woody brown membrane that coats the flesh, the testa.

how to make coconut milk

Cut it off.

how to make coconut milk

Continue until you’ve separated the brown parts from the white. Place the white flesh into your blender along with about two cups of warm water. Blend until thoroughly shredded.

how to make coconut milk

Pour the shredded mix into the tea towel or clean cloth.

how to make coconut milk

Squeeze out the milk. I’d do this with both hands, but my other one is holding the camera.

how to make coconut milk

Let it settle. The thick layer on top is coconut cream, the thinner milk is beneath.

Red Emperor, Melbourne

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Har gau from Red Emperor, Melbourne

I always thought that only tourists ate on Southbank.

It’s the wrong side of the river for me; that strange cultural divide that bisects wherein both sides can say that the other is the morally and culturally wrong side. Since the Casino that dominates the south bank of the Yarra is now taking restaurants more seriously than ever, it is time to reevaluate my prejudices. Southgate, the slightly earlier development on the river still looks like a soulless, polished shopping mall but maybe the food within has changed.

Red Emperor, the Cantonese restaurant within the Southgate complex, is showing its age. The mirrored tiles on the roof, cheap vinyl seats and silver spray-painted concrete columns make the restaurant feel more like a suburban reception centre than one of Melbourne’s leading proponents of Cantonese food (and specifically, yum cha). The superlative view of Flinders Street Station and Melbourne’s skyline from across the Yarra remains unchanged; floor to ceiling windows lend ample distraction from the interior.

Yum cha means “drink tea” in Cantonese. Dim sum is what you eat at yum cha. Yum cha is what you do at Red Emperor. I’ve never ordered much more than a plate of stir-fried gai lan or an extra serve of fried squid from their menu. My guess is that if the gai lan is A$22 a plate, then the rest of their Ă  la carte fare will require me to promise them my first-born in exchange for one of the lobsters crowding their tanks at the entrance.

Red Emperor Squid, Melbourne
Salty, fried squid tentacle.

I’ve never set foot in the place after dark. Lobster before noon is morally reprehensible.

As a midday meal, yum cha is more about the company that you keep than the food itself. It is built to be social: the most memorable yum cha meals should have very little to do with the food. Bamboo steamer baskets filled with mystery dumplings waft by on a trolley for your pleasure, you pick whichever takes your fancy, and then get back to the real task of constructing a conversation. Memorable dumplings help but are not essential.

At least since the last time I’d eaten at Red Emperor, the more interesting items that drift by on the trolley have vanished. The pickles, slices of 100-year old egg, and the cartilaginous steamed chicken’s feet have disappeared. I thought that Melbourne was well past gentrifying its , but in this case, I guess not.

The quality of dumplings – while still good – is only marginally better than you’d receive at one of the mid-range yum cha-focused joints around the CBD, like Westlake, Shark Fin House or Shark Fin Inn. Trekking out to the suburb of Box Hill is even better. At $40-ish a head, you’d get better value elsewhere and charging $8 for tea, normally gratis, is a bitter end to the meal.

Anyhow, on with the short depth of field dumpling porn.

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Har gau (North); Random seafood roll (East); “Shark’s Fin” dumpling, not containing actual shark’s fin (South); Siu Mai (West).

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Sin Chet Kuen: Beancurd skin rolls stuffed with prawn and shitake mushrooms.

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Char Siew Sou: Flaky pastry topped with sesame seeds, filled with sweet red roast pork. My friend J uses these salty-sweet pastries as his yardstick for a good dumpling joint, which makes sense. Both an excellent pastry and top roast pork are hard to achieve, not to mention plating them up to the punters steaming hot.

Red Emperor, Melbourne

Level 3 Southgate,
Southbank, VIC 3006
Tel: (03) 9699-4170

Lunch: Mon – Sat 12 to 3pm, Sun 11 to 4pm
Dinner: 6pm onwards, daily